If you’ve seen 1987’s The Princess Bride as many times as I have it will be easy for you to recall that after Westley surrenders to Prince Humperdinck and Count Rugen at the Fire Swamp, he is taken to be tortured in the Pit of Despair. Inside, Count Rugen has a contraption that drains the life out of his victims and he uses it on Westley. It brings him to tears because it’s so gnarly.
After Princess Buttercup calls Prince Humperdinck a coward, the Prince runs down into the Pit and turns the device all the way up, essentially killing Westley. At least until Miracle Max’s services bring him back from mostly death.
In the novel, released in 1973, this whole sequence has a lot more details about back stories of the Count and Westley. As part of Dread Pirate Roberts training or whatever, Westley has developed an ability to “take his mind away” during extremely painful experiences. This is described as kind of a meditative practice where he disappears into pleasant thought and does not feel pain. The Count begins with common tortures because he’s writing a definitive text book on pain. It’s only when he discovers that Westley is super resistant to his normal methods that he brings out The Machine.
I saw the film when it first came out and immediately read the book. Around this time I was undergoing a ton of very painful dental work and frequent hospitalizations for asthma. Little kids don’t do so well with pain. I don’t know why I tried it for the first time, but I started to do a primitive meditation based on what I’d read in the book. For a while it worked pretty well. Usually it brought down my anxiety before whatever actual anesthetic or analgesic kicked in.
The negative of this practice is that it usually turns my attention down while I’m visualizing something that makes me happy (which is usually this extremely detailed imaginary library in the middle of a giant tree; who knows where I go that from?). If you’re in a Dr.’s office without much else to do, this isn’t a problem. Years later when I started practicing martial arts, Yoga, and later Crossfit, I noticed that I would sometimes slip into this weird emotionless, slightly stoney state of mind when things got uncomfortable.
In these practices there are certainly times where you want to push through discomfort, but the softening of focus caused me to slip into bad habits and poor form. For about six months I really upped the escapism by working out incredibly stoned. Some people swear by it, but I just never had any good results. Most of the exercise I did high was yoga or calisthenic movement type stuff (AKA touch butt). It fucked with my proprioception and made balancing postures extremely hard to do.
I stopped smoking weed before exercising because I took a few days off from the Devil’s Cabbage and was suddenly able to do a pretty decent headstand. After the class the teacher told me I seemed way more present, I looked “healthy in my eyes,” and had really made progress in class. Maybe those Stoner Sloth commercials had a point. I certainly seem to be better at exercise when I’m not fucked up. To many, this seems obvious. I always have to learn the obvious through experience.
My use of performance diminishing drugs and meditation have the same aim: numbness. Sometimes numbing is great. Like when you get a tooth drilled or don’t want to think about your day job. A lot of times it keeps you from learning from the edge and the pain that’s found there.
What I’ve been up to lately is a new type of visualization. If I feel myself checking out, I take a hard deep inhale and think about the most uncomfortable aspect of what I’m doing, or a related fear. For instance, today I was doing this workout that involved five rounds of power snatching a barbell for 10 reps and then running 200 meters. In the second round I found myself trying to escape the discomfort, so I breathed deep and focused on the perturbations.
I thought about the bar crashing down on me. I thought about my lungs burning. By the fifth and final round, I was moving faster than I did in the first half. The trick here is not to think about failure. You want to visualize yourself as a winner, not a loser, but you need to keep the consequences and cost in focus.
My Princess Bride meditation could probably serve a purpose on occasion, but it is not good to get in the habit of avoiding adversity. It’s what makes you better. It keeps you from getting soft.
One of the things I don’t usually enjoy about the Yoga scene here in California is that it’s almost completely oriented to positive thinking and loving yourself. There’s a time to think fiercely and sometimes you don’t deserve unconditional love from yourself because you’v been acting like a chump. Unconditional love is not endogenous, it’s something you get from Jesus or your mom
In modern Yoga you rarely hear anything about the dark side, and they even have a cool goddess to represent it, Kali. She is the manifestation of devastating energy and change, complete and total chaos. Yet whenever some Lululemon flake mentions her, she’s “a badass lady.” What the fuck? How badly can you miss the point? This is not a feminist icon, this is a representation of divine horror. If Kali were to appear in front of you, it would not be like seeing Charlize Theron in Fury Road. It would drive you mad, like an H.P. Lovecraft story.
This is the energy that drives you. It’s Nietszchean. It’s exactly like that scene in Fight Club where Tyler Durden gives the narrator a chemical burn. The best moments in your life are when you’re pushing yourself. Don’t miss them.